The Need for Church Elders

Introduction:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

Elders are the fundamental local church government in the Bible. With the deacons in the second level of government, they are responsible for the church and its activities.

The New Testament is predicated on the idea that elders will rule the local church (see Mat.18:15-20; I Cor.6:1-7; III Jn. 9-10). Biblical leadership has always been about corporate responsibility, since Jethro advised Moses to “select out of all the people able men who fear God…” (Ex.18:21).

The pastoral “one-man-band” so common today (which has frequently been a means of inefficiency and abuse) is an historical anomaly, not a scriptural pattern. Elders are to function in corporate transparency and accountability, “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

Scriptural ambition among elders (I Tim.3:1) is legitimate, but those who seek power and position in the church are to be avoided, to protect the church from wolves. Those willing to undertake responsibility can be safely given it, for power flows to those that take responsibility.

Elders should generally be elected and chosen by those they represent. Paul’s instructions to Titus to ensure that elders were selected, did not preclude them being chosen by local congregations. Descriptions of the elders’ qualifications are found in I Tim.3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9, and I Pet.5:1-4.

The office of elder has, among its qualifications, the ability to teach, and the ability to rule (I Tim.3:2-5). Significantly, the tie to the origin of the office remains. The elder was originally and always a man who ruled a household; hence, in Israel, a ruler (and all rulers were in a real sense elders) had to be a married man, a man tested in authority and government. St Paul restated this qualification as an inescapable fact, “for if a man not know how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (I Tim.3:5). The office of elder required a family-centred society.[1]

Preaching and teaching, church administration, the oversight of the tithe monies and wages, property and buildings, evangelism, missions, charity and care for the poor and needy, relationship with other churches and other duties are all part of the elders’ tasks.

The pastoral work of the church must be overseen by the elders, and a pastor’s authority must never place him above the elders. Some or all of the elders in the church may function in a pastoral capacity.

The 5-fold ministries of Eph.4:11-12, who may be trans-local or international in their scope, are commonly elders in subjection to their local brethren, for at the elders’ door is a sign: The buck stops here.

Church courts (which Paul seems to hint at in I Cor.6:1-7) are an essential part of what the elders must oversee. The function of these courts is to primarily oversee, administer and mediate disputes between believers and churches, to prevent them having to seek judgment from unbelievers.

The Bible warns us that “because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil” (Eccles.8:11).

There is every reason to believe that church courts could also take responsibility for rendering judgment between unbelievers, using Biblical law as a guide. This is particularly the case when the wheels of justice in society’s courts are slow, expensive, corrupt or unjust. There would also be opportunity to render judgment between unions and employers, and in many other aspects of civil life.

Many times, society’s court cases can run to phenomenal expense, and time. I know of one libel case recently that ran for fourteen years, but only required a public apology. Most protagonists would appreciate a quick settlement at moderate cost. Criminal cases would need to be heard in criminal courts.

Those seeking the judgment of the church’s court could be required to sign a document requiring them to accept the court’s decision, beforehand. There should also be an appeals mechanism; no court system has ever been infallible.

When the church is being called upon to consistently render justice in the community again, its authority will be significant indeed. This is an aspect of the Lord’s promise of Isa.2:3, and means the church has an opportunity to use Biblical law as a means of evangelism and dominion.

Because the saints were called to manage or govern the world, very quickly it became their purpose to move into positions of authority and power…the elders, as officers of a law, God’s law, are thus called to apply the law of God to every sphere of life.[2]

Conclusion: One of the ways that the authority of Jesus Christ can be seen in the world, is through the sound government and administration of the church’s affairs, through competent church elderships.

The elders’ first responsibility is to the church, and to “shepherd the flock of God among you…” (I Pet.5:2). But the role of the church is a manifold one, including ministries of teaching, charity, welfare, hospitality and justice in the community. This means that the church elders have an almost unlimited opportunity for influence, on behalf of Jesus Christ in  the world.


[1] Rushdoony, R., “The Institutes of Biblical Law,” 1980, p.741.

[2] Rushdoony, p.742.

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